A gallery that is not a gallery
It’s a good thing that we all more or less agree that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, because over the past ten years the Napoleon Garden sculpture exhibition has never managed it. And it shouldn’t try. The great thing about a temporary exhibition is that it doesn’t have to. So, within certain limits, we have been free to take some risks and make controversial decisions. The layout of the Garden has helped in this. Open only on one side, it has a privacy that shields the rest of the Park from having to come to terms with whatever lurks there. In spite of this every new installation has prompted some objections from “Disgusted of Holland Park”, and so long as these remain at the level of a trickle rather than a flood we have taken them as a sign that we are doing our job properly: providing something to be engaged with, responded to, feel challenged by and wrestle with; something that may take people slightly outside their comfort zone. Certainly the year in which we receive no complaints at all will be a year that has this curator seriously worried.
If they could pay us a visit, Lord and Lady Holland would have difficulty coming to terms with the directions in which public art has moved. In their day it centred on the portrait figure, and its function was typically to decorate, to commemorate, to celebrate victories or to proclaim the power of wealth and empire. Artists’ ambitions are different now. As a society we have become less inclined to put our public figures (literally) on pedestals. There is no longer a consensus on what would be appropriate in a setting like this one or even on what is beautiful. Ambiguity and layered meanings have crept in to art, ushering clear images and narratives out, so that many contemporary works give rise to more questions in the viewer’s mind than they provide answers to. This means that engaging with the art of one’s own time is a much more demanding activity now than it ever used to be. But it can be a more rewarding one too.
All these developments have been reflected in the choice of sculptures for the Napoleon Garden as well as in the way that they are presented. The range of materials featured has been as wide as possible. The signs, placed discreetly at the Garden’s entrance, include more explanatory text than is usual in a gallery setting. They are intended to suggest ways to a fuller understanding of each work for anyone that wishes to engage with it intellectually. But the intention has never been to insist that this should happen. We are in a park after all. Do we demand that visitors should engage intellectually with a leaf or the rain? In the final analysis all that is required is openness to the world and all the stuff in it. Enjoy sheeny transparency; crusted blackness; curved yellowness; spiky twistedness; earthbound solidity. Simply, enjoy.
Anna Stamatiou. Curator, Napoleon Garden, 1998-2011